Isaac Newton Was Obsessed With the Philosopher's Stone From 'Harry Potter'
Harry Potter's nemesis Voldemort wasn't the only one who wanted to get his hands on the Philosopher's Stone.
That magic object (known as the Sorcerer's Stone in U.S. editions of the first Potter book) was a very real concept in the now-lost discipline of alchemy. And back in the 1600s, Isaac Newton was actively trying to make one.
Newton, famous for practically inventing calculus and having an apple fall on his head, was also very interested in alchemy (which at the time was synonymous with chemistry). He had a handwritten copy of alchemist George Starkey's recipe for a key ingredient in the Philosopher's Stone called "sophick mercury." Newton's own notes are scrawled across the document, suggesting he was experimenting with the recipe.
The Chemical Heritage Foundation bought the manuscript at an auction in February:
"Yes, Newton was actively trying to make the Philosopher's Stone," science history expert William Newman told Mic in an email. "There can be no question about it."
But unlike those in the Harry Potter world, alchemists didn't think the Philosopher's Stone could produce "the elixir of life" and make you immortal. Instead, they had their sights set on its money-making potential.
Making a Philosopher's Stone: A big part of alchemy in Newton's time was the idea of transmutation, or converting base metals like lead into gold. Alchemists thought if you could break down metals into their individual components, then you could recombine them and turn them into a more valuable material.
According to many alchemists who wrote about the topic, the Philosopher's Stone was red and waxy, and it was the key to transmutation. Just a small piece of it could be added to a molten metal and used to turn that metal into gold, according to a statement from the Chemical Heritage Society.
Today, alchemy is dismissed as a pseudoscience. The discipline produced a lot of useful laboratory and experimental procedures, but the big problem was that alchemists didn't understand that lead and gold were different elements. Dmitri Mendeleev wouldn't invent the periodic table until 1869.
So no, we won't ever have a real Philosopher's Stone that can instantly turn lead into gold.
But even without a Philosopher's Stone, transmutation is technically possible. Nuclear scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory used a powerful particle accelerator to speed up particles to nearly the speed of light, then crashed them into foil sheets of bismuth. The powerful collision knocked a few protons off bismuth and turned it into gold. But the amount of gold produced was so small that scientists only think it was present based on traces of radiation.
"The problem is the rate of production is very, very small and the energy, money, etc. expended will always far exceed the output of gold atoms," David J. Morrissey, a scientist who worked on the experiment, told Scientific American.
So it's possible, but about as practical as Hagrid keeping a dragon in a wooden hut. That is to say: not very.